Sunday, February 18, 2007

And now, my two cents

I finished reading The Higher Power of Lucky, the 2007 Newbery Award winner by Susan Patron, this evening. I am now able to add my comments to the discussion regarding its language appropriateness, for want of a better description. I am sure to offend any number of school librarians for saying I do not have a problem with the authors correct use of the word scrotum.

Yes, Lucky is a ten-year-old girl. Yes, I know children reading this book are undoubtedly going to be third, fourth and maybe fifth graders. Yes, I realize the vocabulary in question, used in several instances, may be off-putting for book talks by librarians in school libraries. I do not want to sugar coat the very real issue possibly faced with having the title in school libraries. However, this book is about more than a single word; one that, I might add, is simply defined at the end of the book without unnecessary embellishment.

I find it interesting that several other topics dealt with in Lucky are not causing issue. For instance, there is discussion of Alcoholics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, death, and a mother in jail for selling drugs. Each of these topics is potentially troubling for in-school discussion as well, but what I keep reading about is that word. Higher Power of Lucky is a well- written, meaningful book detailing life-changing events for a young girl. By the end of the book, Lucky finds a family in the town's small population both figuratively and literally. By focusing on a single vocabulary element, the meaning of the book is lost.

Let's not forget, there are also issues of fiscal responsibility and library purpose to consider when determining whether or not to add this book to a library collection. I do not foresee any public library having problems with this title. The "word" and book topic aside, public library patrons will expect to have a full collection of Newbery and Caldecott titles on the shelves. Not that there will not be questions, concerns, or statements made by parents and patrons (after all, tax payer money funds the library), but generally speaking the issue is a bit less dicey. School libraries have a catch 22 situation when determining purchasing value for their library, getting more bang for the buck so to speak. School libraries have more stringent policies in place for collection development. They also have parents, administrators, and school boards (not to mention the general public) watching over librarian purchases. So, the librarian needs to have a full Newbery and Caldecott collection, after all these titles have been judged the best in literature for 2206 - but hesitancy to make the purchase because of possible outcry is real. I do not care for it, but it is real.

I bought the title without a second thought after the announcement was made, no I had not purchased it previously and maybe that is telling, because it fulfills a purpose for my academic library's children's collection. Actually, I did not purchase the book, another librarian in charge of a small endowment for children's literature in our library routinely purchases award winning titles, including duplicates of Newbery and Caldecott winners. Why is it an automatic purchase?We have a large, thriving, teacher education program with a full compliment of children's and young adult literature classes. Award winning books are expected to be part of the juvenile collection. Pre-service teachers studying children's literature need an opportunity to read the book and make a determinations for classroom use. Oddly enough I have not heard much from any of the children's literature instructors and will probably gently inquire, via email, as to their opinion regarding the current Newbery controversy.

Newbery critera, while specific in some nature, is very much open to interpretation by the committee charged with choosing a single book (or books if honor's are chosen) for the award. For example, look at the following excerpt from the ALA Newbery Critera web page discussing the concept of distinguished writing to be judged by the committee members:

"a. Interpretation of the theme or concept; Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization; Development of a plot; Delineation of characters; Delineation of setting (and) Appropriateness of style."

"b.Committee members must consider excellence of presentation for a child audience." (ALA, Newbery Criteria)

Those are very broad, and somewhat sweeping, guidelines, guaranteed to generate discussion after award announcements at ALA mid-winter meetings each year.

As I reflect on books read over the summer and early fall, there is one title that impacted me more as literature than what was selected by the Newbery committee. My personal choice would have been Firegirl by Tony Abbott. S
ix months after reading it I remember how touched I was by the book's message. Regardless, the choice has been made and discussion will ensue for several months now with everyone chiming in with opinion pieces. And, in my opinion, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

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